Every sensible activity involving the use of animals or animal-human partnerships is thinking carefully about how to react to shifting public attitudes to animal welfare. The charity World Horse Welfare, which supports the responsible use of horses in sport, published research this week that showed one in five people (20%) think horses should not be used in sport at all, and that 40% only support the continued involvement of horses if welfare standards are improved.
Enlightened groups like World Horse Welfare understand that retaining public support for the use of animals, and the social licence that allows that to continue, requires an honest assessment of how the public perceives the treatment of animals in any activity and tangible changes that address any public concerns.
As World Horse Welfare Chief Executive Roly Owers put it: “Horse sport can rebuild that trust with the public and maintain support - its social licence to operate - and have a bright future, but only if it opens itself to change.”
That is a message everyone involved with the use of domestic animals and management of wild animals should heed. From the Grand National to greyhound racing and from deer management to donkey rides changing practice and a focus on welfare has protected the long-term sustainability of a range of activities.
Simply suggesting that ‘people need to be educated’, or that public concerns can be resolved by ‘positive PR’ is almost always an excuse for inaction and a road to extinction. Of course, we must promote the positives of livestock farming, shooting, hunting, and other activities involving animals, but if we do not accept the reality of changing public attitudes and alter our practices to address legitimate concerns then no amount of promotion of additional benefit will help those activities retain a social licence.
As far as public attitudes are concerned animal cruelty is non-negotiable. If an activity is perceived to be cruel then it does not matter that there are environmental, economic or social benefits. Cruelty cannot be mitigated so there is only one way that any activity can retain public acceptance and that is by ensuring that it is not perceived as cruel. This may sound simple, but it is sometimes extremely difficult for those who are embedded in an activity to accept that public attitudes are a long way from their own, and that addressing those public concerns, even if they do not seem entirely logical, is the only way to secure their future.
It is at this point that enlightened leadership, like that shown by World Horse Welfare, is so important. In every activity, there are people who have the authority and reputation to lead their peers and increasingly a responsibility to do so. The prize is a great one and I remain confident that whether it is sports that rely on animal-human partnerships, livestock farming or wildlife management all these activities can retain public support if they are willing to change.